Gary Shteyngart’s bittersweet romance with television

Anthony Weiss

Gary Shteyngart: Has

Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” is going to be adapted for television by Ben Stiller. (Brigitte Lacombe)

Novelist Gary Shteyngart has made his reputation with wry explorations of ambivalent, conflicted, often frustrated love. Now he is launching into a new affair with television, and it seems that he’s carrying a full freight of mixed emotions.


Last week came the news that Ben Stiller has signed on to executive produce and direct a television adaptation of Shteyngart’s most recent novel, “Super Sad True Love Story.” Shteyngart is co-writing the pilot with Karl Gajdusek for production company Media Rights Capital, which also produced the Netflix hit “House of Cards.”

“Super Sad True Love Story,” published in 2010, is set in a dystopian near-future where the economy verges on collapse, the search for love is channeled through an electronic device called an “apparat” that biometrically measures levels of attractiveness, and the practice of reading is an outmoded embarrassment. The tale follows the misadventures of Lenny Abramov, a balding, bookish, 39-year-old Russian-American-Jewish man who falls in love with a Korean-American woman. (Note: Shteyngart is a balding, bookish now-42-year-old Russian-American-Jewish man who is married to a Korean-American woman.)

The show is being described in the press as a one-hour dramedy, although The Telegraph hopes that the resulting show will retain more of Shteyngart’s acid wit than the term “dramedy” — typically applied to feather-light fare — implies.

On Twitter, Shteyngart sounded about as excited as a depressive immigrant novelist/memoirist can be:

But lest one fear that Shteyngart is head over heels for the medium of television, one need only read “Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth”, which he wrote for this week’s New York Times Magazine. In the essay, Shteyngart describes a dark little experiment he performed by locking himself in a hotel room at the Four Seasons for seven straight days over the New Year with the continuous company of Russian state-run television. (How did you celebrate New Year’s?)

For Shteyngart, the experience was depressing, disorienting, and more than a little dystopian. The networks alternated between “news” that trumpeted the glories of Putin and the desiccation of the the West and surreally kitschy entertainment, much of it made by (or copied from) America.

By Day 4, he dreamed about being trapped in Russia. On Day 5, he brought in his psychiatrist for a therapy session — with the television still on. By Day 6, he decided, “Oh, the hell with it. I’m just going to start drinking after breakfast. And no more shaving and wearing clothes.” You can’t help but feel sorry for him, until you remember he’s doing this to himself. Then you feel even sorrier.

If Shteyngart and company can transfer even a fraction of his mordantly skewed worldview onto television, it will be one of the most watchable shows on the air. Still, if you must binge watch, please remember: Don’t start drinking until after breakfast.

Anthony Weiss is a Los Angeles-based staff writer for JTA.